Federal employees are a highly educated and relatively sedentary demographic when it comes to work, according to a ofessional degree, which is a far higher educational ratio than the general public.
This high level of education is correlated with office work. According to the same report, 36% of federal employees work in professional series, 27% work in management, business, and financial roles, 12% work in administrative or office support. Twelve percent work in service, and only about a tenth of federal employees work in installation, maintenance, construction, forestry, and other highly physical jobs.
Certainly, some service and professional jobs are more active than others, and include plenty of walking, standing, and moving. But many of them are extremely sedentary, where virtually all work is done on a computer or in meetings.
While this can be very rewarding work, it also tends to be unhealthy, and increases your odds of getting certain diseases of civilization. When we factor in long commutes and at-home sedentary behavior like watching tv or spending time online, it adds up in a massive way.
Speaking for myself, this has always been a challenge. My career has been in engineering, finance, and writing, with a big portion of the work I do involving computers. I try to mitigate this as much as I can and spread awareness of the issue, and so here are two simple science-backed tactics you can do this week to substantially increase your health and wellbeing at work.
Stand Up and Move Frequently
As a recent CNN article reported, a study published in September in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that sitting for long periods of time is detrimental to health.
They found that middle-aged adults spend an average of 12.3 hours (out of a 16-hour waketime) sitting. And a small change led to very different outcomes; those that sat for 13 hours were twice as likely to die during the four-year study compared to those that sat for 11 hours.
But it wasn’t just total sit-time that led to negative outcomes. Repeated research has shown that prolonged periods of sitting at work can’t fully be mitigated by a hard exercise session at the end of the day. This study found that those that regularly sit for more than 30 minutes at a time were considerably more likely to die during the four year period, and those that regularly sat for more than 90 minutes at a time were twice as likely to die compared to those that don’t.
The worst outcome was when both were present- those that sat more than 12.5 hours per day and regularly sat more than 30 minutes at a time.
Keith Diaz, a research scientist at Columbia University and the lead author of the study, gave some guidance on how to mitigate this, although he said more research is needed:
For every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.”
I personally throw in some stretches or simple exercises throughout the day as well, in addition to walking.
The Washington Post also has an excellent graphic showing the long-term effects of sitting. These effects include heightened risks of certain cancers, increased insulin resistance that can lead to metabolic syndrome or diabetes, poor muscle and joint health, weak blood circulation, and brain fog due to less release of various brain and mood enhancing chemicals.
While getting up and walking from time to time may take some time away from work, in my experience it is made up for by increased energy and productivity.
Even if you have to stay a few extra minutes at the office at the end of the day to make up for some movement away from your desk during the day, it’s certainly worth it.
Add Some Office Plants
An 18-month study from 2014 found that adding plants to an otherwise sparse office boosted employee productivity by 15%, and increased their subjective sense of happiness as well.
And this wasn’t just a few plants- it was an average of one plant per square meter, and arranged in such a way that people could see them from their work locations. That generally means small plants on employee desks, as well as plants in communal areas.
But the benefits go beyond the psychological.
Almost 30 years ago, the NASA Clean Air Study found that certain plants could substantially reduce common indoor pollutants. Many of them are robust varieties that do well on low light and low water. And again, you need a rather large number of plants per area for this to be effective.
Recent research summarized in the Harvard Business Review found that increasing air quality from acceptable levels to optimal levels had dramatic improvements on employee performance on cognition tests. And this was done without plants and without employee knowledge, to avoid the placebo effect.
Office air is broadly of poor quality. Pollutants from carpeting, furniture, construction materials, dry-erase markers, dry-cleaned clothes, and a hundred other sources, combined with poor ventilation, lead to indoor air quality typically having higher concentrations of pollutants than the outside environment.
Carbon dioxide is an issue as well. Studies have found that during the last few hundred thousand years, carbon dioxide averaged between 200 parts per million (ppm) and 300 ppm in the Earth’s atmosphere, based mainly on ice age cycles. Just in the last couple hundred years, this figure has increased, reaching 400 ppm for the first time in 2013 and steadily going higher.
But this is low compared to office environments, which the Harvard Business Review pointed out typically were around 950 ppm, and upwards of 1400 pm in some buildings.
When the researchers reduced pollutants and carbon dioxide levels in the office environment, employees performed better cognitively, based on measurable tests.
The actionable takeaway here is to at least have a small plant on your desk if you can, and even better, try to get your colleagues and supervisors to include more plants throughout the work environment. The psychological benefits of seeing greenery and the objective air-purifying benefits go a long way towards a better working environment.